THE ROAD TO HAPPINESS Ruby Wax leads the way on mental health
After 25 years of making us laugh, Ruby Wax recalibrated her career and switched from TV to being a poster girl for mental health. Now it’s science, not jokes, that makes her smile
Meeting Ruby Wax is a slightly more subdued affair than you might expect. She’s not lost any of her distinctive American accent, but she speaks in surprisingly hushed tones while enthusiastically chewing gum, like she’s letting you into a state secret.
We’re meeting because Ruby has recently written a manual for life, enlisting the help and knowledge of a monk and a neuroscientist. It’s Ruby’s third book – the previous two, Sane New World and A Mindfulness Guide For The Frazzled, were bestsellers. In How
To Be Human: The Manual, she looks at ways to better understand who we are as people, why we behave in the way we do and how to find happiness in today’s world.
Ruby has been a household name in the UK since the Eighties when she fronted her own chat shows, attracting big-name guests, including Madonna, and Donald Trump. But it’s this second chapter of her life that she’d much rather be remembered for. ‘I did 25 years of comedy, and then it was time to reroute, so I went into science. But I use the two. I use what I learnt to do my shows and books, so it wasn’t a waste of time, it worked out pretty well,’ she says.
‘People are interested in science. You can’t really argue with this stuff, it’s the real thing and I would want to read that if I was the public,’ says Ruby. ‘I’d want to know, oh is that how my brain works, is that how disease starts, is that how I get addicted?
‘I think people are desperate for information because we’re too confused. What’s exercise? What actually kills your body and what’s good for it? All that stuff.’
So has she experienced a more profound sense of career achievement since moving into the mental health sphere? ‘I get more respect,’ she says. ‘And it’s deep with people, so that’s more satisfying than just having people laugh in your face.’
It has been a dramatic reinvention. After speaking openly about her own depression, Ruby became an ambassador for mental health, using her fame to open up an important dialogue. She gained a master’s degree in cognitive therapy from Oxford University in 2013, and was awarded an OBE for services to mental health in 2015.
Last year, she launched Frazzled Cafe, safe spaces where, as their slogan affirms, ‘It’s ok, to not be ok.’ Ruby masterminded the fortnightly meet-ups for people to speak openly about how they’re feeling. It’s not therapy, more like a series of chats about mental health. So successful was the idea, Frazzled Cafe is now backed by M&S around the country. Would she have liked something like that to have existed when she was younger? ‘I wish it had happened to me, yeah,’ she says. Her daughters, with husband of 30 years Ed Bye, are the new comedians in the family, having followed in their mum’s footsteps. Marina and Maddy made their debut at the Edinburgh Festival last summer, so what lesson would she want to hand down to them? Ruby stops chewing her gum to carefully consider her legacy. ‘Don’t blame other people, because I always did. For your lack of success. Or your unhappiness. You can take that responsibility and switch it. It’s nobody else who’ll fix you,’ she says. ‘I’ve learnt that my brain’s plastic and I can break habits and create new ones. But that’s not a surprise. That’s science.’ And her scientifically proven advice to the rest of us? ‘If you’re drinking coffee, taste it. If you’re on the computer and you feel yourself burning out, or reading too many emails, take a breath. It’s all about noticing. A few times a day, focus on your senses. A smell, a taste, or just understand where you are. Look at your kids, don’t just do it on automatic pilot.’
◆ How To Be Human: The Manual by Ruby Wax (Penguin Life) is available now
Ruby Enduring love: with her husband Ed Bye of 30 years,